Over the past couple of weeks or so I’ve seen a few articles written about Huth and Morgan, how they’re old-school defenders, defying a trend towards centre-backs who ‘play’ first and ‘defend’ second.
The first part of this is true. They are old-school defenders, in that you can imagine them battering some upstart peacock of a forward before celebrating the victory with a pint or four, booting away anything that comes within kicking range.
They’re not fancy, but it should be said that they’re competent, Morgan particularly. While neither would get into your average title-winning side, both could probably be utilised in the mid-table team of your choice. This sentence gets to the heart of the so-called ‘bucking the trend’ issue though.
While it’s a shock to see Huth and Morgan at the top of the table, this is as much about their quality as it is their style, and even more about the style of play that Leicester have chosen.
Huth and Morgan are not bucking a trend, or the sign of a wider bucking across the league. They would exist regardless. Were Leicester four places lower the top 4 would be dominated by well-playing all-rounders: Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Koscielny, Kompany, Smalling. Had United clicked even half as well as Leicester have, the presence of Blind may have been taken to indicate a trend towards ball-players instead of the old-school.
The true story is that Leicester have managed to be so successful playing with a system that utilises such a, frankly, one-dimensional skill-set. Teams at the top do so by using possession as well as possible, and generally this involves keeping the ball to fashion good chances and limit opponents.
This means that having centre-backs who can play the ball is especially useful. They can act as secondary midfielders when the opposition are banking down in a 4-6-0, or they can set counter-attacks going quickly when they win the ball back.
Leicester, as so many have noted, go against this completely. They’ve tried to go quick and direct in attack, and been willing to spend a lot of time without the ball, counting on organisation, bodies, and a little bit of luck and opposition wastefulness in order to keep goals out.
And while the centre-backs are a story, it’s the team’s system that is the real bucking of a trend, not Huth and Morgan. They’re a symptom of the buck, a result of it, rather than being the buck themselves.
Post-credit scene, Marvel style:
This is related to the above, though a slightly separate issue. It should be recognised that there is a difference between what is thought of as an “old-school” defender, and a defender who “defends first”, rather than being primarily a ball-player.
While I’m sure we’d all imagine that an old-school English-style defender would always defend first, someone who “defends first” isn’t always an old-school “lump it into row Z” centre-back. It’s like how all dogs are mammals, but not all mammals are dogs.
This is mostly an issue of semantics, but you can’t really talk about players like Van Dijk and Alderweireld in a conversation about Huth and Morgan bucking the modern football trend. The former two are highly mobile and able to play the ball. They’d be unlikely to be on Pep Guardiola’s wish-list (style wise), but if they were the two starting centre-backs he had he’d be unlikely to be scrabbling to write a wishlist straight away.
The Leicester pair are different. Playing deep and sheltered with no real passing responsibilities is the perfect utilisation of their particular skill-sets, and any system that opened them up to much more scrutiny would make them look a far cry from title-winners.
Huth and Alderweireld are not Alaba, but one of them is a damn sight further away than the other.